As luck (or more accurately the Lord) would have it, I have been alternating reading two books which seem to have little, if anything, in common. The first is a modern work written by Ian Leslie called Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It. The second is Norman’s MacLean’s short story “A River Runs Through It” in which he beautifully and honestly explores the relationships between the men in his family and the Montana past time of fly fishing which they all share.
I told you they didn’t seem very connected; however, the Lord used the strange pairing of these two books to push more deeply into my heart a truth which I already know but for which I am in need of constant reminders: people, though often puzzling, are not puzzles. They are mysterious image-bearers of God we are invited to love, not solve.
The Difference between Puzzles & Mysteries
In Curious, Leslie draws a distinction between puzzles and mysteries.
“Puzzles have definite answers… Puzzles are orderly; they have a beginning and an end. Once the missing information is found, it is not a puzzle anymore. The frustration you felt when you were searching for the answer is replaced by satisfaction.
Mysteries are murkier, less neat… Progress can be made toward solving them…but they don’t offer the satisfaction of definite solutions…Puzzles tend to be how many or where questions; mysteries are more likely to be why and how…We have a tendency to prioritize puzzles over mysteries, because we know they can’t be solved.”
This distinction helps explain why people (myself included) can get sucked into a vortex solving crossword, Wordle, or Sudoku puzzles. It we stick with them long enough (or glance to the answer key often enough), we will experience the satisfaction of completion.
According to Leslie, mysteries, which require more of us, “have a longer half-life than puzzles,” as they are “more challenging, but more sustaining.”
It is far easier to stereotype people than to actually know them. In fact, sometimes the people who are the hardest for us to wrap our minds and hearts around are those with whom we spend the most time and whom we love the most.
The tension of “A River Runs Through It” depends on the complexity of relationships between two sons and their loving father. While the three have nearly mastered the art of fly fishing over decades of sharing it as a hobby, they are far from mastering or even beginning to truly understand one another.
At the end of the story, reflecting on the death of his brother, the narrator makes two stunning statements of truth that must be paired together. The first: “You can love completely without complete understanding.” The second: “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”
When I am lazy or grasping after a false sense of control, I tend to turn the people I love the most into puzzles, looking for a solution that will lead to a sense of completion and satisfaction. I do this in marriage, motherhood, and even in the ways I think about myself. I have found myself often lately looking quizzically at my teenage sons, trying to find the missing bits of information that might “solve them.” I don’t say this aloud, but thoughts like, “Once they ____” or “If they only could ___.” betray that I am making them into puzzles.
However, God doesn’t invite me to solve them. He invites me to love them in all their mystery.
As image-bearers of an infinitely mysterious God, people are complex and deep, changing and growing constantly. Proverbs 20:5 tells us, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”
I long to be and to become a woman of understanding who is patient and humble enough to draw people out. However, weekly, I feel as if I am operating above my pay grade in seeking to love people who puzzle me. God has been slowly teaching me to leave space for mystery, both in my relationship with him and my relationship with others, especially those closest to me.
We will spend eternity unpacking and exploring the glorious depths of our mysterious Triune God. So it seems that our time on earth is well spent when we practice appreciating the mystery within his individual image-bearers. I am fighting to learn to leave space for the depths in those I love most deeply to cry out to the depths in our God (Psalm 42:7).
When I lack wisdom in how to approach them or love them or serve them, I am slowly, fitfully learning to ask him for the perfect wisdom that he gives freely without any reproach (James 1:5). While they remain mysteries to me, their hearts are uncovered and laid bare before his eyes (Hebrews 4:13). He knows who they are, how they operate, where they are headed, and what they need far more than I ever could. For now we see in part, as in a mirror dimly, but one day we will know fully when we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).